Sustainable Sourcing: Rethinking Plastic Packaging in the Circular Economy

May 19, 2016 Catarina Brito

Exploring Resource Sustainability and the Effects on the Industry

The European Commission has recently adopted an ambitious new Circular Economy Package to help European businesses and consumers make the transition to a stronger and more circular economy where resources are used in a more sustainable way. The underlying principle of the circular economy is that waste should be regarded as a valuable resource.

The proposals cover the full lifecycle of products: from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials (waste materials that have been identified for their potential for recycling or reprocessing to generate raw materials; for example: mining wastes, manufacturing and processing waste, including scrap and contents of landfill). This will be supported financially by the European Investment Funds, which include €5.5 billion for waste management ¹. 

Plastic and more specifically Plastic Packaging, has an important role to play in these new guidelines, as plastic waste has an important environmental impact and there is no larger market in the plastics industry than the packaging segment. More than a third of all plastics are converted into packaging, which is approximately 20 million tons in the EU. In Western industrial countries 50% of all goods are packaged in plastics².

In order to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment and to reap the economic benefits of reusable plastic materials, two important lines of action will be followed by the European Commission¹:

1. Defining a strategy on plastics in the circular economy, addressing issues of recyclability, biodegradability, the presence of hazardous substances in plastics, and the Sustainable Development Goals target for significantly reducing marine litter.
 
2. Defining a common EU target for recycling 75% of all packaging waste by 2030.

Achieving plastics economy circularity and sustainability: the role of bioplastics

In order to meet the European Commission’s targets, in the coming years new approaches will need to be developed in the manufacturing, reuse and recycling of plastics within closed loops.In partnership with the World Economic Forum and supported by McKinsey & Company, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has published a report entitled “New Plastics Economy”, in which significant attention is given to new developments for scaling up the adoption of industrially compostable plastic packaging and to decouple plastics from fossil feedstocks. One example of a promising enabling technology is bio-based plastics.

Although having a limited adoption due to still limited economies of scale, bioplastics are experiencing an expansion in usage in other areas beyond the niche food segments, according to European Bioplastics Association, the association representing the industry interests in Europe³.

In fact, according to the Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites' (IfBB) research in 2014, 1.7 million tons of bio-based plastics were put on the market (approximately 0.6% of total plastics). Forecasts cited in “New Plastics Economy” Report expect bio-based plastics production to increase to 7.9 million tons in 2019. 

Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources and can be produced from³:

1. Biomass from plants that are rich in carbohydrates and that can be used as food or animal feed (e.g. sugar cane, corn, and wheat).
 
2. Biomass from plants that are not suitable for food or animal feed production. They can be either non-food crops (e.g. cellulose) or waste materials from the first (e.g. waste vegetable oil, bagasse, or corn stover).
 
3. Biomass derived from algae, which has a higher growth yield than the previous source.

As bioplastics are a diverse family of materials and differ in utilizations and properties: some are bio-based, yet they aren’t biodegradable, such as bio-PE or bio-PET.

All types of bioplastics used in packaging offer one paramount advantage over fossil-based products: their use of renewable resources. The image bellow shows the current process and applications of bioplastics in packaging²:

Currently well know companies such as Coca-Cola, Vittel, Volvic or Heinz use bio-PET for bottles while others like Procter and Gamble use bio-PE to package their various cosmetic products.  

With global reaching organizations increasingly turning to these new materials and recycling processes, as well the growing incentives from the European Commission and consumer pressure groups for a better and bigger reutilization of materials, Elemica expects that sourcing projects will increasingly integrate these concerns in their sustainable development initiatives. 

Elemica has supported several customers in improving their waste management sourcing processes (see previous blog article) and in sourcing plastic packaging solutions worldwide. With these new market developments leveraged by Elemica’s experience in tendering packaging, we are ready to support you in finding new material sources for your packaging needs, as well as explore new plastic waste management solutions. Want to know more? Please contact catarina.brito@elemica.com.

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